Interview with Elly Mackay

Author-illustrator Elly MacKay

This month’s interview is with the fantastic author-illustrator, Elly Mackay! Her lovely, luminescent work has graced several picture books including the Blue Spruce Award honor book Butterfly Park. We catch up with her to discuss her work and her process.

View more of Elly’s work at theaterclouds.com

Hello Elly! Welcome to PictureBookers! Tell us a bit about yourself – when and why did you decide to go into illustration?

Hello! I’ve been making picture books for about 6 years now. I live in Owen Sound with husband Simon, my kids Lily and Koen and our dog Griffin. It is not far from where I grew up. I was raised in a converted church in Big Bay. It is beautiful there. There are hiking trails, a wetland and the Niagara Escarpment.

I went to school in Halifax at NSCAD University, where I met my husband. When I was there, I did side work in illustration to help pay for university. I really loved it but it was years before I’d try to make a go of it. First, I went to teacher’s college and taught both at schools and in galleries. Then, when I had my daughter, I decided to make art full time.

Thanks for sharing! It’s interesting that you decided to dive into illustration after becoming a parent; some people feel like they have even less time to pursue their interests after having kids. Was there some kind of revelation or realization that came from starting a family?

Ha. Well, when we had our daughter we decided we wanted to raise her near family so we quit our jobs and moved north. When I thought about returning to work after mat. leave, I knew I had to give illustration a try. It was tough but we managed. I think there is some sort of creative energy that comes to you when you have children. I’ve talked to other women who have had this happen with music.

Your art is highly distinctive and your process working with paper and photography is very unique! How did you discover and develop this way of working?

When I was a kid, my mom (Joan Irvine) wrote books on how to make things out of paper. Instructional books like How to Make Pop Ups. So, I was always making things out of paper too. When I was in my early teens she took me on a train trip to meet other paper artists. After that trip, I started making dioramas with cams to make things move, Victorian optical toys and paper theatre. Our home, being an old church had beautiful green glass windows. I loved how the light filtered through the glass so I started using coloured glass and filtering light in the little worlds I was making. It is similar to how I work now. As an adult, I realized that I liked the photos I was taking of the scenes as much as the paper dioramas themselves. I started selling the pictures on Etsy and found work that way.

That’s a wonderful artistic journey you’ve had! What then led you from selling single images to doing picture books? And did you find it a challenge to now have to think of (and create) images in a sequential manner?

Absolutely. You know, I remember having a hard time as a child with those ‘sequence the images’ activities. I could imagine lots of ways that they might end up in any order.  But it is a skill that I’ve developed (or am working on!) I really enjoy it. There is another difference too between the images I make for Etsy and the ones I make for books. It is easier to have an calm, still image on your wall. But the ones in books, they need action.

Let’s talk about books – you’ve illustrated several picture books and novels over the years. Do you have a favorite? What makes it more special?

My favourite is Red Sky at Night. I loved everything about working on that book. It was such fun researching the old weather sayings, trying to figure out how I could work them into a narrative, imagining the journey the family would take and making the scenes in paper. I really enjoyed working with Kelly Hill too, the designer at Tundra. She actually lives nearby. When so much is done online, it is really nice to have met the people you are working with. I had met my publisher, Tara Walker a few times before too. They are such great people.

You’ve done a wonderful job with the Anne of Green Gables covers. Tell us a bit about how that came about, and the experience working on a treasured children’s figure.

It was actually Kelly Hill that worked with me on those too. She found one of my images online and shared it as a cover option for Tundra to consider. It was a dream job. I love Anne. While I worked on the covers, I listened to the audiobooks in the studio. It was great hearing the words, while drawing and setting things up in the theatre.

Do you have anything coming soon that you’d like to share?

I have a book coming out in April called The Tallest Treehouse. It is about two fairies that have to set aside a competition and work together and build their dream. It was great fun to work on. Especially because it meant trips to our local waterfall for inspiration. Since so many of the images show the architecture of the treehouse, I built a miniature one. I found little strips of veneer to build it with. I wish building a real treehouse was that easy.

What’s your advice to aspiring picture book illustrators?

If there is something you are really interested in, focus in on it and really develop that niche. I guess, I’d also suggest finding an agent, one that you connect with. Be wary of agencies that specialize in new talent or take more than 30%. Reach out to other people in the industry. It is such a great, supportive community.

Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful work with us Elly! Be sure to check out her website at theaterclouds.com

Charlene Chua is a children’s illustrator. She has illustrated several picture books, and hopes to eventually illustrate a book featuring a cat. Visit CharleneChua.com to view her work.

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